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The animated film Ava & Lala turns out to follow the GU archetype fairly closely, although I wasn’t sure at first, as the protagonist Ava is somewhat purposeless and annoying in the beginning. (I would have been more convinced had I seen the tagline on the DVD cover, which references Wizard of Oz – a sure sign of a GU story is referencing another GU story!)
Ava is a bit of a troublemaker for her single father. One day, she follows a strange looking cat (actually a liger named Lala) into the belly of a flying whale that has magically appeared, and is whisked off to Cloud Land with a bunch of other animals. There, an evil tiger is set on finding the “anointed one” whose power he will subvert to destroy the human world (he also has a fox minion). Ava is told that if she stays in Cloud Land for three days, she will become an animal herself.
At first she just explores and has fun and causes trouble, but as things progress (and as she accumulates both companions and enemies), she begins to pursue not one but several typical GU goals – she decides she wants to get home again, she must save one of her companions (who turns out to be the anointed one), she must save humanity from the adversary’s plans, and she must not lose herself in animal form.
When she risks her own wellbeing to rescue her friend (facing the adversary alone in the process), she manages to save the day and herself.
I’ve mentioned the Miyazaki film Kiki’s Delivery Service a couple of times already on this blog, as an example of what I call “reverse Girls Underground” – that is, when the protagonist starts out in an otherworld type setting and travels to the “real world” – but haven’t actually given it its own entry yet. This is because it’s really more of an Honorable Mention, especially since it lacks an adversary; however, it’s still worth talking about.
Kiki is a 13-year-old witch, and it is the custom for young witches to strike out on their own for a year in the rest of the world (where magic is known, but not common). She takes her talking cat Jiji with her, and makes friends with a baker who gives her a room, as well as a young boy Tombo obsessed with flying. She sets herself up as a delivery girl on her flying broom. However, her insecurities about her abilities hit her hard after a bad night, and she loses her magic powers.
When Tombo is in imminent danger due to a dirigible accident, Kiki must quickly overcome her problems and believe in herself in order to save him.
Unlike the original Hans Christian Anderson story, Disney’s 1989 animated movie The Little Mermaid appears to be a Girls Underground story, of the sort I call “reverse” (where the girl starts off in an “otherworld” and comes to our world).
Ariel, 16, is a mermaid dissatisfied with her life in the ocean, who wants to live in the human world. On an excursion to the surface, Ariel saves a prince from drowning and falls in love with him. Desperate to join him, she makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula to become human for three days, in exchange for her voice. She must find true love with the prince in that time, or she will stay a mermaid forever and be at the mercy of her adversary.
While Ariel tries to get the magic kiss from her prince, Ursula disguises herself as a woman and, using Ariel’s voice and some magic, captures the prince’s heart and they are to be married immediately. Ariel’s companions disrupt the wedding and expose Ursula’s fraud. Too late, however, and Ariel is turned back into a mermaid, kidnapped by the thwarted Ursula, and used as a bargaining chip to steal her father’s kingdom.
Ariel has a confrontation with her adversary, although it is actually the prince who defeats her (typical Disney). And of course, her father decides to make Ariel human forever, and she can marry her prince, and everyone lives happily ever after – unlike the original story in every way.
InuYasha is a manga series and anime television series. I have only seen the first part of the tv show, which is what I’m discussing here.
On her 15th birthday, Kagome falls down a well and comes out in a different world, which is also the past. Mistaken for a dead girl (who she may be the reincarnation of), she is chased by demons who think she has something they want, a jewel. She releases a half-canine-demon named InuYasha and subdues him with her own unknown power. He helps her and becomes her reluctant companion. She is also helped by an old woman, who was the dead girl’s sister. She wants to find a way back home, but first she must search for the shards of the jewel that she accidentally broke apart, while fighting off the demons who want to get it first.
That’s as far as I got, but I gather that Kagome acquires more companions, and faces an adversary half-demon called Naraku. And that after getting home, she eventually returns to the otherworld for good. While I realize the series considers InuYasha the main character, it still seems like a GU story from Kagome’s point of view.
I stumbled upon this terrible children’s religious cartoon on Netflix – it doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else. Much as it seems to fit the GU archetype, I couldn’t bring myself to watch more than one episode.
In Chi Rho: The Secret, 12 year old Cora’s father – a Bible expert – has invented a device called the Cubus Temporis that allows the holder to visit any event in the Bible. When he is kidnapped by minions of The Evil One (being a Christian show, of course the adversary is the ultimate Adversary), who aims to travel through time and prevent the stories of the Bible from ever happening, Cora embarks on a dangerous journey to rescue him.
Cora – whose name, by the way, echoes the Greek word for “maiden”, a by-name of Persephone – is helped along the way by Habib, a young boy from the time of Jesus, and a group of talking animal musicians.
There may be a final confrontation, but I will never know because I can’t sit through a whole series of this.
I admit I was a bit distracted throughout the one episode I watched by the fact that Cora’s magical time travel box looks a lot like the Lament Configuration from (GU film) Hellraiser. That would certainly have made it a more interesting Bible cartoon! Check it out:
I think this is the first Girls Underground example I’ve covered where the girl is (originally) an animal. Sometimes Girls Underground get transformed (like in The Cat Returns) but they usually start as humans (or, anthropomorphic at least).
The Last Unicorn is a classic 80’s fantasy animated film based on a novel by Peter S. Beagle (but this post just refers to the film version). One day the unicorn learns she is the last of her kind, which basically fits the “orphan” archetype. Initiated on her quest by a rambling butterfly, she sets off to find out what happened to all the other unicorns. The story is that an evil creature called the Red Bull has driven them to the edge of the world.
She is soon captured by a witch, but in captivity makes friends with her first companion, a mediocre wizard named Schmendrick. When they escape together, they encounter bandits in the forest and acquire another companion, Molly. They travel to the castle of King Haggard, who controls the vicious Red Bull. But when the unicorn is directly threatened by the bull, Schmendrick tries to save her and instead turns her into a human – the bull leaves, but the unicorn quickly loses her magic and starts forgetting who she is.
The companions all stay for awhile in the castle. The unicorn, thinking herself a mortal woman, falls in love with the King’s adopted son, and gets distracted from her mission of finding her own kind. But after going through a magical portal, all is revealed to the prince, and the unicorn is returned to her original form. When the Red Bull kills the prince, the unicorn finds the strength to confront it, and in turn frees the other unicorns who had been trapped in the sea. The castle crumbles, the king is killed, but the unicorn revives her prince, although she can no longer make a life with him.
Chihiro: “I can’t believe I forgot my name. She almost took it from me.”
Haku: “If you completely forget it, you’ll never find your way home.”
Spirited Away is not the first Studio Ghibli and/or Hiyao Miyazaki film to be included on this blog (The Cat Returns, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service), but it probably should have been. It’s one of the most thorough examples of the archetype, and it’s also a personal favorite. I’d just been waiting to watch it again before profiling it here, so it was fresh in my mind. Though I’m only going to give the salient points here from a GU perspective, since the film is too long and detailed to fully describe.
Chihiro is a 10-year old girl who is moving to a new town and is very unhappy about it. Her parents are sick of her complaining, and urge her to think of the move as an adventure – but a much bigger adventure awaits. Her father makes a wrong turn and they end up at the end of a dirt road facing a strange dark tunnel. Her parents goad Chihiro into going through to explore (in the beginning, she doesn’t have much volition of her own), and they end up in an abandoned theme park. Despite her many protestations, her parents sit down at the one booth that seems active (although empty of any proprietor) and start eating the food there – however, this is actually food for the spirits, and because of this her parents are turned into pigs. Chihiro is frantic as night falls and strange apparitions begin to appear around her. The theme park becomes a large bathhouse catering to otherworldly clientele (almost all of her experiences after this take place in the bathhouse, making this one of those examples which mostly take place within a single building).
She immediately finds a companion in Haku, a boy who tries to help her escape, and when that fails, gives her food from the spiritworld to keep her solid, and instructs her on how to enter the bathhouse and be allowed to stay there long enough to save her parents (and hopefully get home again). She meets several more folks who become, if not proper companions, at least helpful acquaintances along her journey. Then she must face Yubaba, the witch proprietress, who is her adversary… although not a wholly evil one, as Miyazaki gives his characters depth and complexity. (As a side note, she also encounters a talking doorknob – animate doors, doorknobs, and door knockers are an odd little recurring theme in Girls Underground stories, though I’m not entirely sure why. See Labyrinth, the Disney Alice, The Hollow Kingdom, and many more.)
Chihiro gets a job at the bathhouse, but must give Yubaba her real name in exchange. Fortunately, Haku helps her remember and keep hold of her name, as losing it would trap her there forever (Alice forgets her name too, and most Girls Underground forget themselves for a period of time). In quick succession, Chihiro begins to have an effect on this spirit world – she heals a polluted River Spirit, a perilous and lonely creature named No Face, and eventually Haku himself (caring for his physical wounds and helping him recall his own name). Empowered again, Haku intercedes on her behalf with Yubaba, and convinces her to let Chihiro go, after one final test – identifying her parents in a row of pigs – which she passes by recognizing that none are her parents (the classic “exposing a fraud” confrontation with the adversary). There is a frequent theme here of remembering – who she is, who her parents are, who Haku is – that is very important to the archetype.
In the end, Chihiro gets her parents back (still oblivious, in their way) and returns to her own world, now stronger and more prepared for the uncertainties ahead.
(For an exploration of the fascinating Shinto influences evident in Spirited Away, see this article in the Journal of Religion & Film.)
“It will protect you. It’s made from the threads your friends wove together.”
Glup is an animated Spanish children’s movie – not the best animation or writing I’ve ever seen, but definitely a solid Girls Underground story.
Alicia (a deliberate nod, perhaps, to Alice?) is a young girl who likes to fix up old and discarded objects and give them new life. One day her well-meaning but oblivious parents throw out her vintage radio, and Alicia chases it into the dump truck and is transported far away to the city dump. There she quickly becomes lost, but acquires the help of various animate objects, who are themselves fighting against the evil Mr. Toilet and his minions. This disgusting adversary is rounding up all new arrivals to feed the voracious incinerator, whereas Alicia’s companions dream of the new recycling plant and a second chance to be useful.
Upon arrival at the dump, Alicia finds that she can’t quite remember who she is or how she got there, but the music of her beloved radio reminds her bit by bit of the way home. After rescuing the radio, her next goal is to help her friends defeat the incinerator, and then get back to her parents.
“You shouldn’t set foot in there unless you believe in yourself.”
Once again emphasizing the importance of knowing and believing in oneself is The Cat Returns, a beautiful animated film from Studio Ghibli in Japan. Haru, a somewhat befuddled and clumsy teenage girl, saves a cat’s life one day, who turns out to be a prince in the land of cats – so the Cat King decides to shower her with gifts (many of questionable use to a human girl), and then take her as a bride for his son. Afraid of his promise to come collect her by evening, Haru listens to a mysterious but kind voice and goes for help to the “Cat Bureau,” which is run by the Baron – a statue of an elegantly-attired cat that comes to life at sunset. When she nonetheless gets kidnapped by a whirlwind of magical cats, the Baron and a fat, cranky cat named Muta accompany her on her journey.
Haru is initially quite taken with the cat kingdom, but the longer she stays there, the more she begins to become feline (thus, forgetting herself and her true nature). She must escape before her adversary, the Cat King, forces her to marry the prince (or, when he turns out to be otherwise committed, the king himself – which makes for a very odd romantic angle to the usual male-adversary relationship… though I suppose if she entirely transforms into a cat it’s not that strange after all).
As they approach the final escape attempt, Haru and her companions must navigate a hedge maze (labyrinth!) before time runs out, and get to the tower at the center, at the top of which lies the gateway back to her own world.
Haru returns to her life before, a changed girl – more confident and collected, and now with lasting friendships with her helpers from the Cat Bureau.